First Impressions: Tips for More Effective Introductions

According to researchers at Princeton University, it takes someone 1/10 of a second to decide whether we are trustworthy when they first meet us.  Hopefully, we have longer than that when trying to convince readers that what we’ve written is worth their time reading it. However, we do live in a world where many people are used to reading all they need to know about the world (or theirs at least) in no more than 140-160 characters. (140 characters is the limit on Twitter and 160 is the limit for a SMS message.) And while Twitter hasn’t brought about the brain apocalypse that many people feared it would (and some still tout it has), there’s no denying that social media has had an effect on what people expect as readers of our work.

Most of us realize how social media use has affected our casual communication in ways such as in this video by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake:

What may not be so obvious, though, are the effects it has had that come into play when we are writing in more formal situations such as our academic writings.  One way that it has affected our communication is that even though we may not be able to define the term rhetorical situation, more of us know how to adapt our writing to fit the constraints of different situations.

While textspeak is the norm for Twitter users, other social media platforms such as Facebook have users who expect posts to be more grammatically correct. It’s expected that bloggers and email users will use language that is even more formal and standardized. Writers who use various forms of social media learn to navigate the expectations of the different platforms they use by reading what others post and by posting themselves. Even if they don’t realize it, this experience usually helps them have an easier time of adapting their writing from a more casual style to a more formal one required by most academic writing as well as adapting it to different stylistic concerns within academia.

Another significant way that social media has effected our writing is that now more than ever, people expect what they read to be concise and to the point.  Social media usage has also made us, as readers and consumers of media, aware that the next best thing is just a click away.  This means that we need to work even harder, as writers, to capture and keep our reader’s attention.  The first step in doing this is to create an effective introduction that will work hard to do that for us. Here are some tips to help you with that:

  1. If introductions are something that you struggle with, try writing the body of your paper before the introduction.  Yes, the introduction is the first part of your paper that your readers will see, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be the first thing that you write. Many students have never considered this as an option even though they struggle with introductions.  If you’ve never tried this before, it might help.  All you really need to know from your introduction in order to start working on the body of your paper is what you think your working thesis is going to be.  You can go back and fill out the introduction later.
  2. Make sure that you understand the assignment and your purpose as a writer.  Purposes are generally broken into three categories–to inform, to persuade, or to entertain. While one isn’t usually used in a way that excludes the other two, make sure you understand what your primary purpose is.  What type of assignment have you been given and what are your teacher’s expectations?  Knowing the answers to these questions will help you determine the tone and level of formality of your piece.  Both of these should be evident from the first sentence of your introduction.
  3. Begin your introduction with a specific statement.  The first few sentences of your introduction should pull your reader into your work and situate them so that they understand what they need to know to follow your ideas later in the draft and to want to know more about them.  Avoid “filler” sentences that are generalized statements about your topic, but don’t accomplish either of those tasks.  Realize that the reason most students begin their introductions with “filler” sentences is because they aren’t sure what they are going to say in the thesis or body or how they are going to say it yet.  If this tends to be you, then be sure to read back through your piece once you’ve written it (or have someone else do this if you need to).  Find the point where finally hit your stride as a writer, where your writing becomes clear and specific.  Then go back and revise what comes before that so that the level of writing, tone, and style all match what comes later.
  4. If you are given a prompt or question to answer in your writing, try to avoid simply rewording it to start your introduction.  Instead, consider using a thought provoking question–maybe one the drove your research or one that resulted from your research or reading to start your introduction.  It should be something that doesn’t have an easy answer since you will spend the body of your paper answering it.  You might also try leading with something that you found puzzling or that you wanted to figure out about your topic.
  5. Many students are taught that defining a term is an effective way to begin an introduction.  Two problems exist with this assertion.  One is that by the time your teacher reads your paper, he or she will have read several papers with introductions of this type.  This means that it will be difficult for you to achieve the impact you’re looking for.  Secondly, most of the time when students use this as a rhetorical tool, they define words that really don’t need defining.  If your readers already know what a term means, then defining it for them creates a distance between you and them rather than doing something to close that distance and further understanding.  Save definitions for terms that your readers won’t know (such as technical, scientific, legal, or medical terms) or for terms that you are using in a way that is different from the standard, accepted definition of the term.
  6. Avoid filling your introduction with details about your topic that your readers are already going to know.  Try using an unexpected example or anecdote.  If it’s a more informal piece of writing, you might even try using a short narrative passage that’s more creative in nature.  Knowing how creative you can or should be in your introduction can be determined by knowing the answers to what we discussed in #2 above. Think about what you found compelling or striking about your topic.  Is there a way to use that or part of it in your introduction?
  7. Avoid overgeneralized statements which will work against your credibility as a writer. Sentences like these tend to include phrases like “people everywhere,” “since the beginning of time,” or “all over the world.” They paint people, time, and location with a broad brush stroke, inferring that they are unchanging and erasing any variances within them.  Not only are statements such as these generally inaccurate, but they also work against your credibility as a scholar and writer.  They set the reader up to expect that you will tend to overgeneralize statements later on, perhaps leaving out key details or missing nuances which would show deeper critical thinking and understanding on your part as a student and writer.
  8. Not only should your introduction capture your reader’s attention, it should explain to them why your topic is important and how the ideas of your paper fit into the larger academic conversation about the topic.  Try to avoid using announcements such as “It’s important to discuss this because…” when establishing these in your introduction.  Instead, think about answering the questions “So what?” and “Who cares?” Use these questions to help you come up with more subtle ways to get your ideas across? Why did you pick your topic?  Why did you feel it was important enough to write a paper about? What question were you trying to answer through your research or reading or in writing your paper?  What’s the problem of not finding an answer or understanding the answer to that question?  What are the practical ramifications outside of the class you are in or the grade you might receive? Who is talking about this issue?  Who is or should be concerned because they or people they know or love might be affected?  Why are other academics, researchers, or journalists writing about this issue? How might you summarize some of their different points of view? Where does yours (as stated in your thesis) fall among these?
  9. Depending upon the type of paper you are writing and the class you are writing it for, it might also be appropriate to include a brief plan which states the general ideas you will be covering in your paper and how you plan to address them.
  10. If you are using an explicitly stated thesis statement (most undergraduate students do this), it should be at or near the end of your introduction.  Try thinking of your introduction as a funnel.  The closer you get to the end (bottom)of it, the narrower it becomes so your thesis should be the most precise statement you’ve made about your topic up to that point.  That, along with it being in close proximity to your first body paragraph, will make the organization of your introduction clearer to your readers.

For more helpful tips for writing effective introductions, check out these videos from Shmoop here and here.  And remember, if you need help with your introductions or any other writing related problems, the tutors in the Writing Center are here to help!

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